Week 5: Vintage Cam Newton on the Field, Chiefs Primed to Fall in Houston, What the Rams Need to Show Against Seattle

Also, those ultra-efficient Buffalo Bills, looking back at terrible offseason moves in Cleveland, true stories of fantasy football bad beats that really actually happened (I swear!), plus musical guest Pearl Jam!
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Quick note: I’d been planning on leading this column with Cam Newton since the game-winning drive in Foxboro last Sunday, and I'm not one to change plans on the fly. I am aware that he said a series of words that, when spoken in succession, were offensive and that there was a whole big aftermath; I’m briefly tabling that topic and will address it lower in the column.

1a. Cam Newton was transcendent in 2015. Then, in 2016, he was bad. And through the first three games of 2017, things were getting worse. It was a bummer. All I could think about while watching him was how all things must end and my own mortality.

I mentioned in Week 1 that Newton’s contract situation is somewhere between mildly interesting and utterly fascinating. The Panthers have an out after 2018 (heading into Newton’s age-30 season). There are two years left on the deal after that. But if Newton’s production falls anywhere between his 2015 and ’16 seasons (a very wide range indeed), the cap hits for the final two years of his deal ($23.3 million in 2019, $21.1 million in 2020) are a bargain in light of skyrocketing QB contracts. However, Newton’s performance over the first three weeks suggested 2016 was not rock-bottom for him.

The designed runs that highlighted his unique gifts almost entirely stripped out of the offense, the Panthers offense seemed destined to fail. Carolina’s reasons for limiting Newton’s role as a runner made total sense—the hits were adding up, the injuries were piling up, and it was starting to feel like the career arc of a late-20s/early-30s running back. But the quick-strike passes added to the offense aren’t in Cam’s skillset. It felt like the equivalent of watching LeBron stand in the corner and shoot threes. (LeBron James. The basketball player.) It raised the question: Is it possible for Cam to age gracefully? And if it isn’t, does it matter?

Things were better in the first half in Foxboro last week, but still a bit worrisome. There was a bad interception early, and a couple of the Panthers’ big plays came thanks to the New England secondary continually acting out Benny Hill skits.

But things didn’t get really exciting until the second half. Sensing the upset was within reach, Mike Shula turned back the clock with his play-calling. Through the first three-and-a-half games of the season, Newton was used on designed runs* five times, going for 10 yards total. In the second half in Foxboro, he was used on designed runs five times, going for 38 yards. That included a third-and-2 conversion and a monster third-and-7 conversion on a third-quarter TD drive with the Panthers protecting a one-point lead. (And he got down in plenty of time to avoid a hit on both of them!) It also included a seven-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter, and a big seven-yard run on a second-and-10 on the final drive to help set up the game-winning kick. When the Panthers needed it most, they called on the Cam of 2015. I can’t imagine the Panthers will go back to Newton running basically power eight times every week, but it has to be a part of what they do.

*—To be clear, because I remember back in the days of the comments sections on these articles we once had a young man throw a digital hissy fit over this killer Jenny Vrentas pre-Super Bowl 50 article because he didn’t understand the difference between a designed run and a QB scramble. A scramble is a passing play that breaks down, with the quarterback making a run for it. A designed run is a play . . . designed . . . for the quarterback to . . . run. (Honestly, this dude filled up our comments section with like 112 GIFs of Newton on designed runs, claiming that it was a QB scrambling.)

1b. For the full, proper reaction to Newton’s misogynistic comments from earlier this week, Jenny has you covered.

1c. It was such a dumb comment that, when I first heard the exchange, I actually wondered if Cam was pissed off at Devin Funchess, because the question was basically, Devin Funchess played really well on Sunday, right? Madam, I would sooner insult 49.5% of the world’s population than compliment Devin Funchess. Good day . . . I said GOOD DAY!

1d. I understand players and coaches bristling at reporters spitting out a bunch of jargon or being critical of their performance—media members don’t know football better than any veteran quarterback; if there are exceptions they can be counted on one hand. So yeah, it must be annoying when people who have no idea what they’re talking about (like me!) tell you how to do your job better. But this wasn’t an overly technical question. And it was the opposite of critical. And you just came off your biggest win since the NFC championship two seasons ago. So . . . what the hell?

1e. All that said, the criticism of Cam’s apology is going a bit overboard. It would have been nice if he immediately apologized (almost as nice as if he didn’t say it at all!), but he apologized and said he learned a lesson and there’s no reason to think the apology wasn’t genuine. (I mean, I thought it was a nice, sincere apology.) Did it take sponsors dropping out to make him realize what he said was dumb? Maybe, but whatever. He realized he had done something wrong, it wasn’t something that’s unforgivable, he apologized and he said he’ll do better. If he doesn’t, then feel free to pile on. But for now, if you liked Cam, keep liking Cam. If you disliked Cam, I guess keep disliking Cam. If you had no opinion of Cam, keep living your life.

1f. The reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, ended up having to apologize for racially insensitive tweets. Newton’s thing got more attention because it happened this week instead of four years ago. And also because he’s two years removed from an NFL MVP season and Super Bowl appearance, hosts a TV show on Nickelodeon and is one of the most popular and recognizable athletes on the planet, while she is a beat reporter known to other journalists and Panthers fans. Cam’s Q-rating is a bit higher. That said, those are some dumb tweets and also offensive. She apologized. So now we can all move on with our lives. I hope.

1g. Also, let this be a lesson to all young journalists: Never tweet. Nothing ever good comes of it. And if you do tweet, delete the tweet immediately and then smash the device you tweeted from into numerous pieces and take a week to travel the country in order to bury each piece of the shattered device in a different, remote location so that no one is ever able to re-assemble it and piece together what you tweeted. Also, follow me on Twitter.

1h. So is stating a sexist insult worse than announcing that you laughed at a racist joke? I don’t know, I mean, they’re both dumb and bad and both instances demand an apology, which we got in both cases. I guess the lesson we can take is that racism and misogyny are still alive and well both in the world at large and in the world of sports. Though if you’ve been paying attention you already knew that.

1i. As a comedy enthusiast, I have to weigh in on one last thing: A lot of people were defending Newton’s “joke” and saying he was being attacked by the PC police (or whatever we’re calling it these days). What Newton said wasn’t an attempt at an outrageous, inappropriate joke. It was a direct insult. But regardless, the bigotry-for-shock-value, he said what! jokes might have had some value in the Leno-heavy scene of 90s mainstream comedy, but not anymore. And it’s not because people are too sensitive. I’m a middle-class white guy and therefore not genuinely offended by anything. When, say, an All-Pro tight end breaks out Jews are greedy and black people are criminals at a comedy roast, I don’t know precisely how genuinely offensive that is. But I do know it’s hackneyed, stale and unfunny.

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2. In the hot-take corner: I’m officially calling a Texans upset tonight, and not just because Deshaun Watson has become the approximation of Aaron Rodgers if Rodgers' body was fused with adamantium. (Adamantium is the Wolverine stuff.)

When we talk short rest, we’re usually talking the Sunday-to-Thursday turnaround. The Chiefs played Monday, which obviously means they lose a day of rest (on account of the fact that Monday comes after Sunday, but I probably don’t have to explain that to you). The point I wanted to make was that their Monday night game against Washington was brutally violent. The headlines were Josh Norman’s cracked ribs, Trent Williams’ injured knee, and the wicked toe cramp I suffered while lying on my couch watching it. But on the Chiefs side, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif injured his knee, Alex Smith tweaked his ankle, and, overall, this game was loaded with vicious hits. (Josh Norman laying out Travis Kelce comes to mind.)

So, short week off a physical game for the offense, and having to travel to Houston and deal with this Texans defensive front, will be no fun. And having a day less to prep for Deshaun Watson and a rapidly evolving Texans offense means less fun for a very talented Chiefs defense. In short, it's a great Sunday night matchup, but I don’t think the Texans should be getting points tonight.

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3. If you’re not excited about this afternoon’s Rams-Seahawks game, you have no soul. Or you have a fulfilling life that doesn’t involve sitting around watching football on a beautiful autumn Sunday. Either way, I don’t want to hang out with you.

The new and improved Jared Goff faces his toughest test yet. And on the other side of the ball you have Aaron Donald and a Rams D-line that historically blows through Seattle’s sieve front five and spends three hours giving Russell Wilson noogies, wet-willies and the occasional pink belly. But what I’ll be most interested to watch is how the Rams’ improved offensive line holds up in its toughest test of 2017. (Yes, the Niners are good up front, but the quick turnaround for that Thursday nighter seemed to be a factor in Week 3.) Andrew Whitworth, poached as a 35-year-old free agent, continues to stake his claim to the title of “NFL’s most underappreciated player.” The fact that he’s been a first-team All-Pro only once in his career is an indictment of our public schools. John Sullivan gives Goff a cerebral and physically capable pivot. The three holdovers from last year—RT Rob Havenstein, LG Rodger Saffold and RGJamon Brown—have been serviceable, and the arrival of Whitworth has allowed the Rams to devote a bit more help to the guys on the right side.

The Rams catch a break with Seahawks edge rusher Cliff Avril out with a neck injury. (I usually have a feeble attempt at a joke ready at all times, but I do not have a feeble attempt at a joke in regards to Avril’s neck injury; if it is as serious as Pete Carroll made it sound, that’s a cruel blow to a great player and a shame for Seahawks fans and for folks who just like exceedingly talented and passionate football players.) The downgrade from Avril to Marcus Smith-led patchwork is a large one.

But the Rams will still have to deal with three monster talents in Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson and Frank Clark up front. Also, I’m trying to rally riders for the Naz Jones bandwagon. (I’m probably overrating him since I started taking note of Jones after that shoulda-been-pick-six against Aaron Rodgers in the opener, rookie he seems to do something notable a couple times per game.)

As Pro Football Focus points out, Goff is torching opponents when the pocket is clean. When it’s not, he still flashes that terrible habit of drifting straight backward. The fate of the current NFC West—and the world . . . well, no, just the NFC West—will likely rest on how well this Rams O-line holds up on Sunday.

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4. At the quarter-mark of the season, Sean McDermott is the Coach of the Year and if you disagree with me I will boycott you and any organization you are associated with.

I stand by earlier comments that the Bills’ roster is not good (Two Bills Drive be damned!). It’s the opposite of good. Which is bad. LeSean McCoy is a treasure. The offensive line is decent, ditto the defensive line and the young corners. Their receivers and linebackers are weak.

And then there's Tyrod Taylor. He’s a darling of game-charters but seemingly not of play designers; I get it, he’s not an anticipatory thrower and therefore puts some limitations on your passing-game designs. But his mobility is a major plus. He’s a very good deep-ball thrower. And the efficiency of mistake-free football carries Taylor and the Bills. The Bills’ opening season drive ended with a Taylor interception, but they haven’t had a turnover since. That's a good way to win games. Going back to 1941, 34 NFL teams have averaged less than one giveaway per game over the course of a regular season. Thirty of those teams made the playoffs.

Of course, of those four teams that didn’t make the playoffs, one of them was the 2016 Bills. (In fact, last year’s Bills were one of two teams to ever average less than a turnover per game and put up a losing record.) Taylor isn’t one of these low-turnover Checkdown Charlies—he can take his shots downfield and deliver big plays—but there’s only so much he can do with these second-rate weapons.

The lack of points leaves little margin of error for Buffalo's defense, but like the offense, this unit has played efficiently and mistake-free under McDermott. Through four games, they’ve allowed only four passing plays of 25-plus yards (second-fewest per-game in the league), are one of three teams (with Pittsburgh and Green Bay) to not allow a touchdown from outside the red zone, have held opponents to the third-lowest red-zone TD rate (4-for-11, 36.4%) and are tied for fourth in takeaways (seven). Last year they were middle-of-the-pack in all four categories. Buffalo allowed 31 passing plays of 25-plus yards (tied for 13th-most), 10 TDs from outside the red zone (tied for 14th-most), held opponents to the 14th-lowest red-zone TD rate (54.4%) and were tied for 23rd in takeaways (18).

It’s a unit that doesn’t have much in the way of difference-makers. So the question is: Can McDermott keep them operating at this level of efficiency for 12 more games, or is this thing about to fall apart?

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5. Remember that time the Browns traded for Brock Osweiler and netted a second-round pick? It was different and creative and out-of-the-box and exciting; I mean, who does that? It made us all feel alive again.

Well, at the time I mentioned that, as awesome as second-round picks can be (they should definitely draft whomever is going to be the next Drew Brees or Brett Favre next spring), perhaps it’s not the wisest way to spend the $16 million you have kicking around. Especially when it could have gone toward paying a guy like Terrelle Pryor Jr.’s old man, who, while not young at age 28, was a developing star with plenty of tread left on the tires and the potential to play at a high level for the next five years at least. And he was a guy they developed! That’s the kind of player you figure out a way to keep. And, although there was some conflicting reports last winter, Mary Kay Cabot confirmed that Pryor indeed wanted to return to Cleveland.

So instead of front-loading a deal that could have kept Pryor in Cleveland for the next four or five years, the Browns spent it on a second-round pick. Not great. But wait! It gets worse. Along with $16 million for a second-round pick, the Browns handed $17 million (according to math, that’s $33 million) guaranteed to Kenny Britt, who is kind of like Bizarro Terrelle Pryor. Britt is also 28, but an old 28 considering his injury history (as my podcast co-host and personal shopper Andy Benoit has relayed on our show, last year one defensive coach’s scouting report on Britt was: He can run a go route, he can run a stop route, he can’t run anything else. Maybe Pryor doesn’t pan out in the long run, but by the end of last season he was, at worst, Britt’s equal, and with a significantly higher ceiling. How’s it going through Britt’s first month in Cleveland? Well . . .

The Browns are doing things differently, and this regime’s run won’t be defined by one (or, in this case, two or three) bad decisions, but . . . well, let’s put it this way. In the early aughts, Billy Beane’s A’s front office took a disadvantaged small-market team and, through analytics and creative thinking and a series of against-the-grain moves, made three straight postseason appearances with the Oakland A’s in a sport that demands sustained success (162 games!). That’s why their movie starred Brad Pitt and featured a screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin. At this rate, the Browns movie coming out in 10 years is going to star Tom Green (I’m imaging a lot of physical comedy and poop jokes) and be written by the creators of JAG.*

*—That’s a real cheap shot at JAG, right? And I apologize, but it’s just such an off-brand NCIS, and from what I've seen that doesn't seem to be a very good show either. But who am I to talk; the cast and crew of Jag all worked on one more long-running network TV show than I ever have. At least until someone green-lights a pilot for the script I’m working on: Robot Hospital.**

**—If there are any network execs reading this, I’m willing to tweak the concept for Robot Hospital. It can be robots are the doctors, robots are the patients, or both. Also, it can be the robots are lawyers if you think that works better. I guess the main takeaway is, I’m very open to notes.

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6. I’ve held my tongue on this matter for long enough. I’m not sure what’s going on with the gentleman on the right here, but I do know this is no way to live your life.


I’ve been noticing this on sideline shots for a couple of years. Perhaps it’s the NFL’s statement against automation and show of solidarity with the American worker. But, really, all I can think of is this . . .

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7. Sometimes you win your fantasy football game. And sometimes you lose. This episode of “Gameday Evening News Morning Edition” is a segment on the harrowing true stories of people who lost in fantasy football, a segment appropriately titled: “True Fantasy Football Bad Beats Voiced Over Stock Photos of Frustrated People.”

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8. I’m not sure what Mitchell Trubisky did to deserve getting thrown into the pit of despair that is the Chicago Bears’ offense for the next three weeks. (I bet it had something to do with taunting adorable woodland creatures.)

Starting Monday, the Bears go up against three top-level veteran defenses: vs. Minnesota, at Baltimore then vs. Carolina. And, just a reminder, Chicago’s best receiver is a 5' 6" rookie running back, and their wide receiver depth chart now consists almost entirely of random people who were bumped from flights leaving O’Hare on the day of Bears games. I don’t want to be a negative nellie, but this is kind of like sending poor Trubisky into a knife fight with a soggy, half-eaten ice cream cone.

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9. Ladies and gentlemen, Pearl Jam!

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